Goodnight Irene (2018) – James Scott Byrnside

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It’s 1927, and Chicago private detective Rowan Manory is struggling both financially and emotionally after a routine case goes horribly wrong. So when he recieves a request from former Chicago gangster and bootlegger Robert Lasciva, the offer is too good to pass up… plus Manory has some more personal reasons for taking the case. But when Manory and his assistant Walter Williams travel to the moonshiner’s Mississipi mansion, they find it atop an isolated ridge as a near-biblical flood rages around it. The guests at the mansion are a handful of business associates and long-lost relatives – and Robert believes one of them is plotting his murder.

This book, while being patterned after the intricate puzzle mysteries of long ago, doesn’t make the mistake of thinking fair-play mysteries are required to be “cozy”. This world is a lot more gritty and seedy than those shown in the Golden Age. Manory’s client and his associates are Chicago gangsters, and have committed horrible crimes in the past. The murders and in one case rape of children feature into the backstory. The detective’s actions can have terrible consequences, if he gets it wrong. Though the book revels in violence and darkness, it never dwells on it. It knows when to be serious and when to be fun – without the tonal whiplash that implies, and I was not put off, despite it being tougher stuff than I’m used to. There’s often a sense of dark humour which gets the protagonists through the trials that they face.

The protagonists are a fun pair. Rowan Manory is a brilliant detective who works outside the police, yes; but he’s also an already flawed and difficult human being who gets “broken” not long after his introduction. He’s driven to take his case by a personal connection to it, and a hope that solving it will allow him to recover. I wouldn’t exactly say he’s a more realistic protagonist, but he’s certainly a more modern one. He makes mistakes and goes through hell in his investigation, so no matter his flaws, he kept my sympathy throughout. His struggles never get in the way of keeping the plot moving, and often are used to ratchet up the danger of the situations he faces.
His partner in detection, Walter Williams, was also engaging, though we don’t learn that much about him. He is of course “the reasonable jelly who holds it all together“. In this case he mostly tries to hold Manory’s sanity together. I’d like to see Williams get more chances to shine.

The interactions and banter between Manory and Williams are some of the best – and best-written – aspects of the book. You might wonder if being a self-published book might mean the writing quality is low (I’m sure that’s much less true these days anyway), and that’s not the case at all. There may be a few confusing sentences or odd phrasings here and there, but I’ve read professionally published books with far worse editorial quality (no, I haven’t reviewed them here). The prologue is one case where it shows a very different tone and writing style compared to the rest of the book. So don’t be put off if it isn’t to your liking.
Oh, it did spoil the solution to The Big Bow Mystery for me, which was a bit naughty.

The puzzle does live up to its inspirations in its complications. We start with the beheading of one person (inside a suit of armour!) and the disappearance of another – from a sealed and watched room. Shortly after this, someone gets poisoned, but there’s not much time to dwell on this as Manory sets about investigating – still in the driving Missisippi rain. Manory and Williams face a good deal more physical danger when detecting than most Golden-Age style detectives, and there’s one more death before the dramatic conclusion. The incidents are all tied together very nicely, and clearly clued. I would say many of them might be a little too clear, as I remember solving a good deal of the mystery first time round. Frustratingly, Manory takes until the very end of the story to unravel something that for me was obvious. But I’d rather a fair-play mystery play too fair than withhold clues. There were plenty of other mysteries as part of the plot that left me pleasingly baffled. In some books, obvious clues mean an obvious plot, but this was never the case here – the book doesn’t let up with the twists and turns in the present, even though the past might be solvable. This is no static crossword, where the characters sit around waiting for their plotlines to be solved: they have things to do.

The previous cover, showing the mansion and the coffins washed loose by the Great Flood of Missisippi… I rather like it. Though I get that it doesn’t let you know what you’re in for.

It all builds to a very dramatic conclusion, which I was impressed by. The puzzle is tied up, but without losing sight of the characters and dilemmas that are important to the story. There’s a final button on the end that I thought worked excellently, ending the book with a final memorable punch.

While Goodnight Irene has its shaky patches, it already shows Byrnside carving his own space in the revived puzzle mystery genre. The thrill of solving a puzzle can co-exist with the thrill of high-tension twists and turns, and real danger for the characters. A Golden Age revival doesn’t have to be a shadow of the past, it can forge ahead with something new while still bringing in those elements that lay forgotten for so long. Fortunately since I’m so late to the party reviewing this, there are already several more tales in the series avaiable. I’m looking forward to digging in to them.

Other opinions:

Ah Sweet Mystery
Beneath the Stains of Time
The Book Decoder
Countdown John’s Christie Journal
The Green Capsule
The Invisible Event
Suddenly at His Residence

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